GMOs: poisons that will kill our children, or harmless foods?

I think I hung my colours out long ago in this “controversy”, but let us just be clear:

I DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THE GMOs CURRENTLY BEING FARMED WORLDWIDE POSE ANY THREAT TO HUMANS OR STOCK ANIMALS AT ALL.  NONE!  NOR DO MOST BIOLOGICAL SCIENTISTS WHO ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT GENETIC MANIPULATION OF PLANTS ENTAILS.

Is that clear enough?  No ambiguity there?  Good!  Because the people who have taken poor Fair Lady magazine to task recently, mainly on their Facebook page, for daring to publish an article saying the same thing, would have you believe otherwise.  By relentless recycling of discredited animal feeding studies, reiteration of untruths, canards and plain lies, and by personal attacks on anyone expressing an alternate view.

Title page of the article

Title page of the article

I don’t think that Fair Lady will complain if I reproduce the title page, because I think their article is a reasoned, well written and factual exploration of the topic – which is a LOT more than I can say for most of the comments about the article.  Which includes gems like this:

“Oh dear Fairlady Magazine has made a BIG mistake!!!! Writing an article like this could put them out of business. I will never buy a Fairlady Magazine again and neither will any of my family. Stick to fashion Fairlady. Let Farmers Weekly publish an articles on GMO’s!!!! GMO’s are killing people. It’s not an exaggeration. It is proven, published, peer-reviewed fact. How many people do you know with cancer? Can you count on one hand or two. Ask yourself why. Maybe you could ask well-Informed People who are Fully Aware of the Irreversible Damage unleashed by Toxic GMOs on Earth.”

Now the problems that I have with the kinds of attacks on GMOs that are exemplified by these responses, are the following: these are the assertions that

  1. EVERYTHING is Monsanto’s fault
  2. ALL GMOs are toxic / poisonous
  3. There is ample evidence of harm to both animals and humans

All three of these straw men are, of course, rich in taurine excreta.  In the first place, while Monsanto may well have started the ball rolling on a big scale, and owns patents and seed rights on much of the early and simple one-trait GMOs, they do NOT own everything, and are NOT responsible for many of the recent developments still coming down the developmental pipeline – which are considerably more sophisticated than the ubiquitous herbicide-resistant or Bt-producing maize or cotton.  These would include plants resistant to various viruses, bacteria and fungi, plants engineered for higher nutrient / vitamin content (eg: Golden Rice and golden bananas), and drought- and salt-tolerant plants.

As for toxicity, NO GMO can be released if there is convincing evidence of toxicity in animal feeding trials, which HAVE to be conducted for each new “event”, or novel GMO.  I have sat on panels in SA which have assessed applications by seed companies to grow / produce GM crops, and I can tell you that this is a major feature of any application.  Where non-expert people often get confused is the fact that certain crop plants have been engineered to make insect-specific toxins normally produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.  These are collectively known as “Bt toxins”, and the ones used as insecticides are specific for narrow ranges of related insects, and most often for lepidopterans – which include moths and butterflies.  Now the larvae of particularly certain species of moths are major agricultural pests, and include agents such as maize stalk borer and the cotton bollworm – and from Wikipedia:

“Spores and crystalline insecticidal proteins produced by B. thuringiensis have been used to control insect pests since the 1920s and are often applied as liquid sprays”.

That’s right: crystalline protein masses extracted from live bacteria and live spores of bacteria used to be sprayed around as pest-control agents.  Everywhere!  Moreover, from Wikipedia again,

“Because of their specificity, these pesticides are regarded as environmentally friendly, with little or no effect on humanswildlifepollinators, and most other beneficial insects and are used in Organic farming“.

Yes, really: actual Bt toxin, and actual spores that can develop into live bacteria, can be used in organic farming.  Now why would anyone have a problem with a technology that LIMITS exposure of the environment to a bacterial toxin, and most especially, to live bacteria, by containing the protein within the plant tissues?  Moreover, the amount of Bt in the edible seeds of maize is minimal, and people don’t eat cotton – so we are left with possible effects on wildlife, and cattle which eat the green parts of the plants.  And no-one has ever  shown any deleterious effects of Bt in GM plants on non-target organisms.  Oh, there was the Pusztai report, which claimed to have shown that snowdrop lectin-containing transgenic potatoes were toxic to mice – but this elicited the following comment:

“The [British] government’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes(ACNFP) has dismissed Dr Pusztai’s findings as inconclusive and irrelevant due to serious doubts concerning the design of the study. The particular type of potatoes on which Dr Pusztai conducted his experiments would never have been approved for food use. Indeed, the ACNFP stated that had an application been submitted on the basis of the data collated from this flawed study, it would have undoubtedly been rejected”

A nice exploration of the pervasive effects of bad publicity following publication of bad science was published recently: this was “When bad science makes good headlines: Bt maize and regulatory bans“, in Nature Biotechnology.  These authors state that

“Numerous laboratory toxicity studies and field experiments, as well as years of field observations in countries where Bt maize is cultivated, have provided evidence that the Cry1Ab protein expressed in Bt maize does not cause adverse effects on arthropods outside the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), the group that contains the target pests. Supporting data have been analyzed in reviews and meta-analyses”

Another point of contention is herbicide-resistant plants, which again, have not convincingly been shown to be toxic.  I say convincingly, because anti-GMO activist will immediately quote “the Seralini study” which purportedly showed deleterious effects on lab rats fed transgenic maize producing a protein which detoxifies the herbicide glyphosate as well as the herbicide itself – to which I reply by inviting you to read this rather damning report by the European Food Safety Authority, which opens with the following statement:

“Serious defects in the design and methodology of a paper by Séralini et al. mean it does not meet acceptable scientific standards and there is no need to re-examine previous safety evaluations of genetically modified maize NK603″

Now I will remind everyone that this is an agency which is NOT in Monsanto’s pocket – or anyone else’s – and which upholds high standards in safeguarding the general public.  As do the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food & Drug Administration of the USA, which also have no problems with GMOs (FDA statement; USDA information).  Here is a another comprehensive refutation of the “evidence of toxicity” of glyphosate-resistant soybeans, an unpublished study that is widely quoted by anti-GM lobby.

As for “ample evidence of harm” – I can only refer you to what we biotechnologists would regard as an authoritative source, which is the journal Nature Biotechnology.  In a recent article on GMOs entitled “How safe does transgenic food need to be?” by Laura DeFrancesco, the author asks the question:

“Why, after transgenic products have been in the human food chain for more than a decade without overt ill effects, do these doubts persist? And will it ever be possible to gather sufficient evidence to ameliorate the concerns of skeptics and the public at large that these products are as safe as any other foodstuff?”

Further on, she says:

“Critics and proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) alike agree that genetically modified foods have failed to produce any untoward health effects, and that the risk to human health from foods contaminated with pathogens is far greater than from GMOs” [my emphasis]

I don’t think I need to belabour the point further: I am hopelessly compromised, in the eyes of some of the more rabid activists, by being a biotechnologist at all, and especially – Gasp!! – BECAUSE MY LAB MAKES GMOs!!!  However, if that makes me more amenable to believe actual evidence-based findings, rather than unsubstantiated media hype, then so be it.

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7 Responses to “GMOs: poisons that will kill our children, or harmless foods?”

  1. Leon Says:

    Excellent analysis, Ed! We need more rational people to be vocal and speak out against all the woo and disinformation being pedaled as science. Thank you!

    • rybicki Says:

      Thanks Leon! Sometimes this un- and anti-scientific crap just annoys me to the point of having to say something. You should hear me on vaccines and evolution…B-)

    • rybicki Says:

      Leon, I have referenced your blog post on GMOs to the anti-GM posters over at Fair Lady as evidence that not only I think this way…B-)

  2. Wild Juggler Says:

    Great post! It seems many people who are against GMOs believe GMOs are part of this vast conspiracy to give all of us cancer, or something like that. And that Golden Rice is the most evil thing ever invented, after nuclear weapons.

  3. Steven Bertelli Says:

    Great article Ed! Coming from you I will consider that a verifiable source, and consider myself educated on the topic. Thank you. Keep up the great work.

  4. Francis Says:

    Great ED. Hope kenya is listening.

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